‘House of Earth’ is Woody Guthrie’s novel finished in 1947 recently discovered and published earlier this year edited and introduced by Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp.
This is a tale of depression-era Dust Bowl America and the lives of Tike and Ella Hamlin, their struggles, hopes, dreams and desire to build their own home from the land which they live and work upon.
The reviews of House of Earth have focussed on the erotic nature of the Hamlin’s love making (which would have been un-publishable in 1947), their unfinished stories, and the lyrical ordinariness of their lives.
‘House of Earth’ was inspired by Guthrie’s purchase of a ‘nickel pamphlet’, ‘The Use of Adobe or Sun Dried Brick for Farm Building’. As such ‘House of Earth’ is also a significant ‘moment’ in the cultural history of earth building.
Guthrie’s reflections on the materials for construction of the Hamlin’s home, when compared to their neighbours and landowners (in the past and present) (from their own wall papered shack to timber to stone to their dream adobe home) and what those different materials ‘mean’ is fascinating. For Guthrie (and the Hamlin’s) building with earth was not of the past, but provided an autonomous and cheap way to achieve self-sufficiency. (Here this also links to the earlier post about ‘values’ and meanings of Soddies in the US Midwest: https://lucooke.wordpress.com/2013/07/17/re-gifted-heritage/).
The US Department of Agriculture Farmers Bulletin no. 1720 ‘The Use of Adobe or Sun Dried Brick for Farm Building’ was written by T A H (Thomas Arrington Huntington) Miller and published in 1934. It is a typical how-to guide (of which there were many produced around the world in the interwar years), and details the kinds of soil, how to make and lay adobe bricks, foundations, windows and doors, inside and outside wall ‘treatments’, and chimneys.
The guidance on wall treatment is of its time, and favours modification of the earth with the addition of harder cements. For example recommending the use of Portland cement for render (here described as Cunningham Coal-tar paint – 1 part Portland cement, 1 part kerosene and 4 parts coal tar), and Portland-cement stucco (1 part Portland cement, 3-4 parts sand, and hydrated lime), in addition to recommending the use of Portland cement mortar on corner-sections.
The earth building community has long debated modification of earth versus raw earth construction, and now the majority of earth builders opt for a softer, more breathable, and less carbon-heavy approach to the materials of construction. Moreover the conservation of historic earth houses with cement renders and stuccoes has proved problematic as deterioration of the earth materials is associated with water damage and occurs beneath the rendered surface. When repaired this damaged material has to be removed and so substantial change can occur, and it has proved controversial.
The final section of House of Earth has Ella in labour (giving birth to the child conceived in the haystack, dreaming over the earth building pamphlet). In her long, long hours of labour she deliriously dreams of their new safe adobe home for their baby. It is a powerful scene (and one with skin-crawling eeriness to it), and fits with the other preoccupation of earth buildings as alternative and symbolic of Gaia as Mother Earth.
In the end the reader of ‘House of Earth’ is left guessing, did the Hamlin’s build their home? We know that Guthrie dreamt of his own adobe home but that was never built and perhaps that is a whole ‘other’ world of conservation of un-built homes and the values and significances that they would hold.
The full text of the revised (1949) Farmers Bulletin no. 1720 ‘The Use of Adobe or Sun Dried Brick for Farm Building’ is available on the University of North Texas Digital Library: http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc5880/.
The NPS Preservation Brief on Preservation of Historic Adobe Buildings (published in 1978 which details the problem of repairs to cement renders is online): http://www.nps.gov/tps/how-to-preserve/briefs/5-adobe-buildings.htm
And more information on ‘House of Earth’:
The New York Times ‘announcement’ of the publication of House of Earth http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/books/review/woody-guthries-dust-bowl-novel.html?_r=0
Michael Faber Review 14th Feb 2013 http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/feb/14/house-earth-woody-guthrie-review